Brianna Keilar isn’t looking for a fight in the early afternoon on CNN. Sometimes, she gets one anyway.
In recent weeks, Keilar has tilted at Fox News Channel anchor Tucker Carlson in a fact-checking segment about his criticism of U.S. Senator Tammy Duckworth, and appeared to be on the verge of tangling with U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi after asking her if she trusted White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows when negotiating a coronavirus relief package. “That’s not an appropriate question for you to ask,” Pelosi responded. Keilar used tough words with Tim Murtaugh, the communications director of the Trump 2020 Campaign, who kept asking her to “hold on a second” as she questioned him about the administration’s coronavirus policy.
Keilar’s reply: “I can’t hold on a second when you’re not being honest.”
Anyone who keeps pace with the anchor’s program by examining the clips CNN posts on social media each day might be tempted to think that her 1 p.m. hour has become the toughest place on the network’s schedule. “She will not move on until she gets the answer to her question,” says Eric Hall, who is executive producer of Keilar’s program and one of the hands behind Brooke Baldwin’s daytime success at the network. “It may take 15 minutes, but she does not move on. That’s one of her greatest strengths.”
She has others. In July, Keilar’s 1 p.m. hour of “CNN Newsroom” saw a whopping increase of 140% in the audience most coveted by advertisers in news programming – people between 25 and 54. That hour was also the most-watched in that demographic in July among the nation’s three main cable-news outlets, though Fox News’ 1 p.m. rival still attracts more viewers overall. Keilar has also helped CNN deliver the best July audience in that time slot in 15 years. She has recently been anchoring 2 p.m. as well.
Keilar, who became a daytime regular in 2018, says she’s not sitting around trying to get segments to go viral. “You can’t purposely create moments. These are just things that happen organically,” says the anchor, in an interview that did not turn contentious for even a moment. “I don’t think you can predict that. A lot of times, going into the interview, you have an idea of maybe what you want to talk about. And the people you are interviewing have an idea of what they want to talk about. Somewhere on the other side, I don’t think either person comes out with what they expected.”
Even so, there is a broadening assumption an interview with Keilar and a politician or campaign official will be tougher than most, particularly when a Trump official pays her program a visit. Critics have asked why she bothers to have some of them on. “We have to challenge lies. We have to challenge falsehoods and conspiracy theories. If you don’t, they fester – unchecked and unchallenged,” she said during her broadcast Wednesday. “You cannot just ignore B.S. You have to shovel it.”
Holding public officials accountable isn’t a novel approach among journalists. But those who have done it well in time slots where such leaning in might not be expected have won bigger audiences at CNN. Anchor Chris Cuomo used to parry with politicians while co-anchoring the network’s morning mainstay, “New Day.” He has since been given a primetime program that is typically CNN’s most-watched show.
More TV-news outlets are throwing harder material at audiences in the daytime. ABC News recently replaced a lighthearted 1 p.m. extension of “Good Morning America” hosted by Michael Strahan, Sara Haines and Keke Palmer, with a pandemic-focused news hour led by Amy Robach. MSNBC had loaded its 1 p.m. slot with the tag team of Stephanie Ruhle and Ali Velshi – neither one a shrinking violet. Soon, “Meet the Press” anchor Chuck Todd will take it over. Fox News has experimented with 1 p.m. anchor Harris Faulkner leading town halls on big topics, such as distance learning.
“We see 1 p.m. as the turning point of the day. Viewers are coming out especially at that time for context and perspective,” says Hall, the producer. “They are looking to us to advance the story, to find voices we are not hearing from all day long.”
This isn’t Keilar’s first job at CNN. She has been with the WarnerMedia outlet since 2006, when she joined as a breaking-news correspondent for CNN’s affiliates, then worked her way up through general assignment duties, and coverage of Congress and the White House. She did an early stint as part of a “morning zoo” radio program in Yakima, Washington, a job she says “was a lot of fun,” but not something she envisioned doing long-term. She moved on to become a producer and reporter for CBS News, delivering a news program to college students on MTVu. “I was covering the same things I would be covering today, just with different audience that was younger,” she recalls. “I did, however, interview Mark Zuckerberg early on, when Facebook was only on college campuses and we had no idea it would be gigantic.”
She has captured the interest of the broader audience in the past. In 2016, former Trump attorney Michael Cohen came on air while Keilar was filling in for Wolf Blitzer in “The Situation Room.” She believed he was ready to discuss a shake-up in the Trump campaign effort. But he immediately took issue with her assertion that then-candidate Trump was behind in the race. “Says who?” asked Cohen. “Polls,” Keilar answered. “Most of them. All of them?” It’s a moment that still surfaces from time to time.
As is the case with many of her interviews, she says, the subject came in to discuss one thing and ended up sidetracked by another. “He took issue with the characterization of it being a shake-up. That’s not what the interview was about. It was about what is there the Trump campaign can do to rebrand itself and what are the things they need to be successful.” The interview, she adds, “ended up in a simple dispute over verifiable facts, and it resonated with people.”
Regular viewers know, she says, that her entire program isn’t devoted to push-and-pulls with whoever might appear on any given day. She spends a lot of time interviewing people who aren’t well known, but whose experiences may help to illuminate big national stories. In recent days, Keilar’s viewers have seen her interview a teacher taking early retirement amid the current pandemic and a San Francisco bus operator relating his experiences trying to get riders to put on face masks.
She’s also doing essay-like moments that use research and recent sound and video clips to help her audience separate fact from fiction. Viewers, she says, “get real fatigued in the face of a whole lot of misinformation,” so she thinks it’s valuable to spend time going over what the president or politicians say – “almost like a report, and we are going to show you all the sights and sounds, so you can decide.”
If you tune in expecting to see a clash, she says – well, don’t. “If you let things devolve into a shouting match, then it’s really difficult to have a discussion, a serious discussion. That’s what we are trying to do.”